Larry Skonie violated the Army's cardinal rule: Never volunteer for anything.
When someone asked, “Does anybody here have any experience in construction?” the Chicago native acknowledged he had been an apprentice bricklayer at U.S. Steel before the Korean War broke out and he got drafted.
The then-20-year-old GI discovered such meager credentials qualified him to supervise a half-dozen South Korean soldiers building “sheds” and “huts” for makeshift motor pools some 15 miles north of the 38th Parallel. The language barrier was overcome because the one South Korean who knew some English could relay Skonie's wishes to the rest.
The “garages” resembled pole barns, fashioned out of logs with canvas sides sewn together by the Koreans for work bays.
They were just a sideline.
The principle job for Skonie and his fellow 179th Infantry service company mechanics was to keep vehicles running — regardless of the weather, battlefield exposure and the Army fleet's age.
In the harsh winter months, when temperatures could drop to 30 below or worse, Skonie would most often be huddled over an engine compartment fixing popped clutches or tuning vintage World War II-era vehicles. The whole fleet would have been destined for the scrap heap if war hadn't interrupted the demobilization of the nation's armed forces after 1945.
“If we couldn't fix it there ... if we needed something major (like replacing a transmission), we had to send it to a division motor pool in Seoul or Inchon. They had more equipment,” Skonie said.
Parts for such antiquated rust buckets? The crew nearest the front lines resorted to cannibalizing vehicles knocked out of commission for replacements.
They couldn't work with gloves on, so heat was vital.
The Crown Point resident can only look at the cold-weather scene on today's National Football League sidelines in open-air stadiums with envy. No such heat blowers warmed benches for his team.
“We had heat inside from portable generators ... kerosene, fuel oil ... out of 8-inch pipes, but the cold was still there,” Skonie said.
On a good day, he estimated the temperature inside a stall was as much as 60 to 65 degrees.
All too frequently, crews were summoned to help tow trucks that slid off one of the many mud-filled roads on slopes ranging from hilly to mountainous. Skonie broke a finger when a winch cable snapped on one such towing call.
“We couldn't leave anything for them (Chinese or North Korean forces) to take,” he said.
They also had another detail that fell to the service company. One that didn't have anything to do with vehicle maintenance, as Skonie pointed out.
They retrieved the corpses of fallen comrades.
Most of the time, Skonie and his fellows tried not to think about the assignment, but there was one soldier “hung up on barb wire and all shot up pretty bad ... that got to me,” said Skonie, a 25-year officer with the Chicago police force who retired in 1989.
Gathering the dead wasn't a duty he or anyone else would have wanted to sign up for, but it was a stark reminder of the ferocious fighting going on just over a ridge in the days leading up to the end of the war.
The struggle for Pork Chop Hill, one of the bloodiest engagements of the entire war, took place near Skonie's station. They were “serenaded” at night by the bugles and flutes Chinese forces used before entering battle to signal their positions and frighten their enemy.
The five-day battle ended July 11, 1953, and 16 days later the truce was negotiated.
“The heaviest shelling we saw was the day that was announced,” Skonie said.